Ethics Reform Bill Exempts Most Earmarks

Congress is poised to pass a sweeping ethics reform bill that supposedly will end the “culture of corruption” epitomized by disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, but Senate Republicans say it’s a toothless bill because the new restrictions would not apply to the large majority of pet projects secured by members.

“The way our Senate bill is now, it will only apply to every five out of every 100 earmarks,” said Sen. Jim DeMint (R.-S.C.).

Both the House and Senate versions of the bill aim to give transparency by identifying an earmark’s sponsor, but the Senate version would not apply to any projects carried out by a federal entity. For example, any project designated to be done by the Army Corps of Engineers would not have to be identified, but one that allotted money for a private organization would.  

A guide to earmark reform tracking these bills made available by Citizens Against Government Waste said that under these rules, “Projects such as digitization of Department of Defense (DOD) manuals, which helped land former Rep. Randy ‘Duke’ Cunningham in jail, would not require sponsor identification because the funds were directed to DOD, not a specific company.”

The pending Senate bill also would not apply to earmarks that were added to conference reports, which is how so much controversial spending is sneaked in.

Agreeing With Pelosi

To make earmark reform more comprehensive, DeMint said the Senate should adopt language from the House version of the bill crafted by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D.-Calif.). “And, it’s not often I agree with her,” he said.

DeMint said the root of the Senate bill’s problem was that it lacked the clear definition of what an earmark is that is contained in the House bill. He said, “The way they’ve defined them over on the House side, what Nancy Pelosi did is include all the various types of earmarks.  Over here, we don’t define something that is federal as an earmark, and the definitions are key in conference as well.”

On January 9, Sen. Tom Coburn (R.-Okla.) wrote a hard-hitting letter to Office of Management and Budget Director Rob Portman encouraging the White House to veto the bill if the House language pertaining to earmarks was not adopted.  

DeMint agreed with Coburn’s demand.  “I think the President needs to get out in front with what he will accept because it would keep us from just spinning our wheels and sending something over there.”

“Transparency by itself can’t work,” DeMint said.  “The process has been flawed in that you don’t get a vote on it in committee or on the floor and it’s all added in conference. It doesn’t matter how transparent it is after that because it comes back and it can’t be amended. There’s general agreement on what do to, but if we agree on something without defining earmarks, we’ve wasted our time.”

Sen. James Inhofe (R.-Okla.) said that although transparency is good, many lawmakers are eager to take credit for earmarks as a way to gain political capital.  “They want their name on them,” he said. “So, I don’t see how [identifying sponsors] is going to accomplish all that much.”

Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R.-Tex.) may be one of the eager sponsors.  “I’m always pleased with what I put in as earmarks, and I’m happy for the public to know about it,” she said. But she did say she thought it was “perfectly fine” to broaden the definition to include federal projects. She said, “I don’t think I have a problem with transparency or anything.  I’ve done Corps of Engineers, and I’m happy to let people know that we are getting drainage and protection for the Trinity River in Dallas.  So I don’t have a problem with transparency at all.”